The words “elder” and “deacon” bring to mind all sorts of ideas for the average person in today’s world; perhaps a cult or a holdover from a bygone era? Nevertheless these terms describe the leadership in a normal Christian church! The earliest missionaries appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23), elders and deacons existed together in the church at Philippi (Phil. 1:1) and Paul likely thought of them as working together when he penned instructions about church order to Timothy, his son in the faith (I Tim. 3).
Who are they, what is their function and how can they serve together in harmony?
The word “elder” simply means an older or more mature man. Synagogues in Bible times depended on the older men of the congregation for wise counsel and decision making, so it is understandable that the earliest churches employed the term for their spiritual leaders. One can trace the transition in leadership from “apostles” to “apostles and elders” to “elders” in the book of Acts. The New Testament pattern for leadership in the church is a plurality of men called elders or overseers.
The word “deacon” means servant, also appearing from the beginning as a plurality of men designated as assistants to the elders. The most natural explanation of their origin seems to be the record in Acts 6 where seven men were chosen to protect the apostles from becoming entangled in temporal concerns of the church. Although the noun “deacon” (diakonos) is not used in the passage, the related words for “ministry” (diakonia) and the verb “to serve” (diakoneo) occur three times, so the inference that this passage presents the first deacons is reasonable and adopted by most expositors.
Space does not allow for an extended discussion of the duties of these servants (see the 5 articles in ESN 2000 on the work of elders, and “The Blessing of Deacons” ESN March, 2004). However, a brief summary of their respective spheres of labor will help us understand how closely they might work together in the church.
The elders are responsible for the spiritual feeding, leading and protection of the flock, described fittingly as “taking the oversight.” The deacons tend to the financial and temporal needs of the people with an emphasis that seemed to be (at least in the beginning) on the poor and the widows. In this way provision was made for the whole spectrum of “people needs” that exist in any fellowship of believers. This is consistent with the example set by the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry. He brought a message of life and hope to the world but He constantly ministered to the needs of body and soul; He “went about doing good…” (Acts 10:38 KJV).
Some smaller assemblies today feel no need for a recognized group of deacons. It is true that the earliest deacons were not chosen until “the number of the disciples was multiplied…” (Acts 6:1) However spiritual leaders should always be discipling the younger men of the church who can eventually replace them; working with a recognized group of deacons is one good way to do that.
Inevitability of Overlap in Function
Two extremes have always plagued the work of the church. One is the failure to provide adequate leadership to meet the needs; the other is to over organize and quench the work of the Holy Spirit as He would energize the ordinary men and women of the congregation. A balance must be preserved!
That this is not just “business world mentality,” as some would call it, is shown by a careful look at the record. About the deacon Stephen, it is recorded that he was “full of faith and power” and “did great wonders and miracles among the people.” In defending the faith, we read that his opposers “were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (Acts 6:8,10).
Shortly thereafter, it is recorded of the deacon Philip that he “went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them” with marked results; (Acts 8:5). One might have expected these highly spiritual ministries to be confined to the apostles, at least for a few years while the newly appointed deacons served an apprenticeship! But instead we see how freely and effectively they began to share in the spiritual work of the church!
On the other hand, when news of an impending famine reached the church in Antioch, and a collection was taken to help the poor saints in Judea, it is recorded concerning the gift that the donors “sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 11:30). Why didn’t they send it to the deacons? Again, an overlap of ministries is evident.
Opinions vary on this, but these incidents show that the church should be careful not to create mutually exclusive departments with competing authorities to control them. Clearly there is a spiritual side to the work of deacons, both in the development of their own gifts as Christians and in the administration of the temporal affairs of the church. Likewise the elders have liberty to be involved in all the spheres of the life of the church, particularly whenever they discern that actions and decisions have a spiritual impact on the work, as is so often the case.
Thus we see that overlap in areas of leadership is inevitable, in fact essential. As partners in the fellowship of the Lord’s work, leaders must learn the skills of communication, deference, and team work to be truly effective. But it is just here that unity and harmony may come under attack from the adversary.
Working in Harmony
Whenever groups of people serve a common need together and have the authority necessary to function, the potential for friction exists. Recognizing how problems can gain a foothold in the church is crucial. We are not to be “ignorant of his [Satan’s] devices.” (II Cor. 2:11).
A great deal has been written on the subject of preserving unity in the church. Without wanting to over simplify the matter, the observation seems justified that most problems stem from a single source: pride, the lack of a humble spirit in the servant. Those who lead in the church must be vigilant lest a spirit of jealousy or competition arise in the mind and take shelter in the heart. The Lord Jesus quickly recognized this in His disciples and spoke out against it. Several Scripture passages record the discussions of the disciples about who would become the greatest in the kingdom.
In response, the Lord’s admonition is as needed today as in biblical times: “You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant….” (Matt. 20:25-27).
The desire to use God given authority to control others, to have the prominent place is always a temptation. How can church leaders guard against these natural inclinations of the heart? Here are some questions for personal consideration. They might also make for interesting discussion in leadership meetings:
Questions to Ponder
– Is it my firm conviction that the sins of pride and envy grieve the very Spirit on whose power we depend for blessing in the church? Can I acknowledge that I am commanded to humble myself as something within my power to obey? (I Pet. 5:5).
– When difficulties arise, do I make it my practice to judge myself rather than my brother; to remind myself that the beam may be in my own eye as I think of the mote in his?
– As together we face decisions and projects in the work, can I set as a goal the inner desire to make my brothers look competent rather than call attention to their short comings?
– Do I realize how demoralizing the sin of evil speaking is, and do I resolve not to engage in it?
– Am I willing to give a brother a “heads up” to prepare him for a difficult situation?
Many similar questions might be asked, but in the end it all comes down to loving the Lord Jesus and desiring that His mind might be reproduced in us. There can be no true growth and blessing in the church where malice and bitterness exist among those who lead. On the other hand, seemingly great deficiencies in goods or talent will prove no obstacle for the Lord as He walks among the lamp stands inspecting the light they emit (Rev. 2,3).
In describing the harmony that should exist among brethren, David, in Psalm 133, adds the interesting insight that, “there the Lord commanded the blessing…” (verse 3). May the Lord give elders and deacons the grace to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” (Eph. 4:3).